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Copyright 1991

September 12, 1991



A Palestinian guerrilla group said on Thursday it had flown the body of an Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon to Vienna for eventual return to his family.

"The remains of Samir Assad are in Vienna in the hands of the International Committee of the Red Cross," Daoud al-Talhami, a spokesman for the Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), told Reuters.

"Negotiations for handing him over have reached a very advanced stage and we expect an agreement very soon," he said in a telephone interview.

Israeli security sources said on Thursday they expected the DFLP to hand over Sergeant Assad's body soon as the next step in a complex prisoner exchange which could also spell freedom for Western hostages held in Lebanon.

A Lebanese government minister said two Western hostages, one American and one European, would be freed within a week as part of the same process.

Israel broke a month-long deadlock in the Middle East prisoner saga on Wednesday when it released 51 Arab prisoners held in south Lebanon and returned the bodies of nine Arab guerrillas.

The Lebanese Shi'ite Moslem groups which hold the Western hostages had insisted Israel make a token release while Israel wants information on another six Israeli soldiers who have gone missing in Lebanon since 1982.

The DFLP says Assad, a Druze Arab captured in 1983, was later killed in captivity in an Israeli air raid on Rabbit Island near the northern city of Tripoli.

Talhami said the DFLP had agreed to enter negotiations for the return of the remains of Assad followed appeals by a Druze Arab group led by Palestinian poet Samih al-Qassem, also a Druze.

Another DFLP official said the Marxist group had its own demands and that the Geneva-based ICRC was negotiating with Israel on its behalf.

Asked what were these demands, he said: "We have a number of demands, Israel knows them and we will not declare them until after the agreement."

One Israeli security source said that in return for Samir Assad's remains Israel would allow a DFLP activist expelled in 1986 to return to his village at Abu Dis near Jerusalem.

Ali Abu Hilal, 35, was exiled on suspicion of organising guerrilla cells. Neither his family nor the army said they had any knowledge of his imminent return from Jordan.

The pro-Iranian Hizbollah (Party of God) is believed by Israel to hold three of the other six Israeli servicemen -- airman Ron Arad whose plane was shot down in 1986, and two soldiers captured the same year.

Israel said on Wednesday that one of them, Rachamim al-Sheikh, was dead. It said it had also received information on his companion, British-born Yossi Fink, but could not say with certainty whether he was dead or alive.

Three more Israelis -- a tank crew missing after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon -- were captured either by Syrian troops or Syrian-backed Palestinian fighters or killed. The three are Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman.

In Vienna, an Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman said he was unaware that Assad's body was in Vienna or that the handing over to his family would take place there.

"I am not aware of anything like that," he told Reuters by telephone.

An Israeli embassy official in Vienna declined any comment on the body's arrival in Vienna or of negotiations for its release.

"I have no further information on this," he said.

Officials at Vienna's Schwechat airport also said they were unaware that a coffin was at the airport.

Officials from the International Red Cross or the Austrian Red Cross were not available for comment.

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